Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1153
Old Jack: caretaker of headquarters
O’Connor: young political canvasser
Hynes: canvasser whom others suspect of working for the rival side
Henchy: a canvasser
Crofton: a canvasser
Lyons: a canvasser
Richard Tierney: politician running for office in the Royal Exchange Ward and for whom the canvassers are working
Father Keon: de-frocked priest and friend of Tierney
Charles Stewart Parnell: (dead) Irish Revolutionary in whose honor ivy is worn on the lapel to commemorate anniversary of his death
On the anniversary of the death of Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell, several political canvassers meet at headquarters to compare progress and discuss an upcoming campaign. Although they all believe they’re skilled pollsters and persuasive political manueverers, they are very cynical about their candidate, Richard Tierney, and the Dublin political process in general. They also fear that they might not be paid by Tierney; furthermore, he’s even failed to deliver a complimentary case of Irish stout as promised.
As the canvassers converse with the caretaker of headquarters, other canvassers come and go, several checking to see if the money—or the stout—has been delivered. A de-frocked priest and friend of Tierney’s, Father Keon, also appears but leaves almost immediately.
Finally, a boy delivers the stout to headquarters, and all of the canvassers partake of the alcohol, including the boy, whom they invite to drink before he departs. Suddenly, the canvassers are considerably more generous about Tierney than they first appeared, but another member discloses that he suspects one of the canvassers (Hynes) of betraying their campaign and working with a rival politician. They further question whether Edward VII is any more suitable a political leader than was Parnell during his lifetime, and the conversation switches to Parnell.
The group of canvassers becomes nostalgic for Parnell and prevails upon Hynes to recite a poem he had written on the death of the leader. After his reading, the group applauds.
James Joyce was highly politicized as a child by his father, a fierce supporter of Irish nationalism and Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of its cause at the time. When a love affair scandalized Parnell’s name, he was ostracized by the very Irish masses who worshipped him and—in 1891—died after having been betrayed by many of his supporters. The concept of betrayal and Ireland’s parochial and unforgiving stance toward Parnell, left a profound effect on the nine year-old James. These themes are a constant in his writing and very strong in this story, which takes place on the anniversary of Parnell’s passing. To commemorate Parnell, the canvassers wear a sprig of ivy on their lapels.
Contradictions in this story abound, from the small and subtle to the large scale. O’Connor is described as a “grey-haired young man” with a “husky falsetto” voice. Although all the men are canvassing votes for Richard Tierney, none likes him and all distrust him, calling him “Tricky Dicky” and referring to his “little pig’s eyes” and unscrupulous character. In light of their distrust, it’s ironic that the men willingly campaign for him, promising one voter that “He’s a respectable man.”
Ironies include their reversal of opinion about Tierney after the politician sends the promised case of free alcohol to their headquarters. Before Tierney sends the complimentary stout, all the men accuse him of miserly and unfair practices; everyone anticipates being cheated of wages. After the delivery, they decide that Tierney is “not so bad after all. He’s as good as his word, at least.” Clearly, a case of alcohol goes a long way in redeeming the sender’s character. This, too, gives evidence of the men’s weak political commitment, their mercurial judge of character.
They delight in having the stout and drink it eagerly, offering a bottle to the delivery boy as a tip. After he’s gone, however, they condemn the boy for under-age drinking, stating, “That’s the way it begins” in reference to alcoholism. Ironically, they notice the boy’s imagined problem but fail to scrutinize themselves.
Further hypocrisy is evidenced by the men’s distrust of each other in spite of the forced air of camaraderie. Henchy suspects Hynes of double-crossing them with another candidate; Crofton believes his colleagues are beneath him. Although they all wear ivy to commemorate Parnell, several men strongly support King Edward VII’s visit to Ireland, a trip that Parnell himself protested in 1885. Finally, many of them are willing to overlook King Edward’s moral transgressions although Parnell, a hero, was shunned from Irish politics for his. When Henchy asks, “Can’t we Irish play fair?” the answer, apparently, is no.
Given their confused morals and uncertain stance on politics, fairness, and the betterment of Ireland, it’s not surprising that the caretaker, Old Jack, cannot keep a successful fire burning at headquarters. The fire—or passion—for a free and just Ireland has obviously gone out among these men. Twice O’Connor is asked by another: “What are you doing in the dark?” The dark is literal and figurative because all the men lack light and direction in their political consciences.
Despite the political atmosphere at headquarters, the one vibrant and respectable politician is, ironically, Parnell himself, whom Joyce believed could actually have saved Ireland. When Parnell’s name arises, O’Connor vows “we all respect him now that he’s dead and gone.” Ironically, of course, their respect, the sprigs of ivy, and their false sentiment are meaningless to Parnell and Ireland “now that he’s dead and gone.” During the discussion of Parnell, the reader notices the corks flying out of the bottles of stout, which have been placed by the fire. Although the men are merely uncorking their alcohol, the repeated “Pok! Pok! Pok!” of the flying corks sarcastically resembles the military salute a fallen leader receives at a funeral. In Parnell’s case, the pathetic uncorking of Irish stout is the best he receives from this gang of questionable campaigners, just as the shabby treatment of his political supporters was the best he received in his lifetime.
When the group becomes nostalgic for Parnell’s day, when there was—Jack says—”some life in it then,” they call upon Hynes to recite the poem he wrote to honor Parnell’s passing. The poem praises Parnell as one of “Erin’s heroes” and condemns the many who turned against him and tried to “smear the exalted name” of the politician. Ironically, the poet is the same man whom Henchy suspects of current political treachery, and many in the room—Joyce suggests—did nothing to save Parnell except make empty gestures. Hynes’ poem closes by providing a hope that Parnell’s political spirit may once more inspire Ireland to “rise like the Phoenix” to freedom. However, considering the ignoble and hypocritical state of Irish politics, this—Joyce believes—is an unlikely dream.
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